Conservative Christian churches are not eccentric. They believe they are merely consistent in their understanding and application of Christianity. They believe that the Christianity they have received must be passed on without diminution. Where they differ from many other Christians is that they believe there is more to Christianity than the gospel and a statement of faith. They believe there is such a thing as Christian worship, and they wish to pass this on. They believe Christianity is a life of love and worship, therefore they believe they must preserve and pass on the whole notion of ordinate affection. They believe Christianity must be applied to a continually changing world, therefore they wish to pass on a concern for meaning. They believe they are simply one link on the chain of Christian history, therefore they wish to honour what is truly Christian from the past.
If what it means to be truly Christian is not only to believe the gospel and some doctrines, but to worship and love God ordinately, apply His Word effectively, and honour both past and future Christianity, then consistency means we must care about these things and pass them on.
Unfortunately, the current climate in Christianity tends to portray such things as extraneous to Christianity. Pastors who pursue them are accused of everything from elitism to cultural imperialism, from Gnosticism to disregard for sola Scriptura. This is not surprising. The thinking is, if the Christianity represented by the celebrity preachers or pastors of ‘successful’ churches does not pursue these things, then they cannot be necessary to healthy Christianity. All those people can’t be wrong, right? This leads me to a concluding plea to my fellow-pastors: love people, not populism.
Populism is that species of thought which thinks that in order to be true, useful or good, something must be uncomplicated, immediately accessible, and transparently practical. Populism assumes that all that is true and good and necessary to life can be understood equally by all and accessed or perceived immediately, without specialised training or instruction. Recourse is made to texts about receiving the kingdom as a little child, and this is supposed to end the discussion. Consequently, populism views higher learning with suspicion. Populism views consulting experts with suspicion. Populism views advanced studies with suspicion. Populism views tradition with suspicion. Populism views authority with suspicion. Populism views intellectuals with suspicion. The upshot is a roll-your-own-at-home Christianity, where sincerity and an open Bible will supply all we need.
If we embrace populism, we almost certainly cannot be conservative Christians. We will sneer at discussions of ordinate affection. We will dispense with complex discussions of theology or philosophy. We will dismiss the matter of the moral imagination. We will reject the notion of reading unbelieving experts in their fields. We will be impatient with tradition. We will tend to make judgements pragmatically. Most ironically, we pastors will become anti-clerical and anti-ecclesiastical, like the cartoon character sawing off the tree limb he’s sitting on.
Pastors are usually men with a practical bent and a heart for people. This is as it should be. But this need not become a reason to embrace populism. Before the triumph of populism in the 19th century, thousands of faithful shepherds laboured effectively in churches, loving people without loving populism. Because populism is such a dominant attribute of modern culture, it is hard for practical men with a heart for people not to be wooed by its pragmatic and democratic character. Nevertheless, we do our people no favours when we deny them essential parts of Christianity, simply because such things require patient and lengthy explanations, or because such things require disciplined and intense study.
A love for people means supplying them with what they need most and what will help them most: an undiminished Christianity. This will mean teaching them things that they may initially reject, or misunderstand, or fail to grasp. It may mean enduring charges of elitism, Gnosticism, or authoritarianism. Yes, many of our people are populists, and expect us to be too. But as any parent knows, love is not merely meeting the expectations of your children all the time. Love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
May God grant the church the gift of faithful shepherds who will do their utmost to teach, conserve and propagate a full-orbed, undiminished, and biblical Christianity.